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Before coming to Israel, I did not like to engage on Israel issues. I never felt connected to the land, nor did I feel a connection to the people. Sure, I knew most Israelis were Jewish, but they were not necessarily a part of my own Jewish identity and Jewish community in the US. The mainstream media and Jewish community seemed to make me choose to be “with” Israel or “against” Israel, and truthfully, I didn’t know anything about the Conflict (or Israel for that matter) other than the stories of suicide bus bombings and the Kotel.
Since coming to Israel, I’ve learned an incredible amount about Ethiopian Israelis, Druze Israelis, migrants and refugees, the climate, the food, the culture, the government, and the Jewish religion. Only now, after gaining some background on Israel, it is necessary to also discuss the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Last week, we spent the day traveling in the West Bank and spoke with four Palestinian activists, who talked about their experiences in grassroots social change. Throughout the last few weeks, we have been looking in depth at the Conflict here, which has proven to be an increasingly complicated situation.
During our day trip, we spoke with a man who works on water issues, helping to partner Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities with the shared goal of working on resource management. He showed us where the separation barrier would have been built in Battir and its effect on the water system. We also met with a man who works for the UN on Palestinian/Israeli issues. He guided us through a discussion of a map illustrating land usage of the West Bank, of which 60% is controlled by Israel.
- We looked at a map more complete than this one. The West Bank is fragmented into Areas A, B, & C.
What I was most surprised about was the breakdown of the land and stubbornness on both sides in relation to the land. We visited the south Hebron Hills to look at a Bedouin village with one legal building and a number of tents. Literally next to the village was an Israeli settlement with all the amenities of modern living. The two groups do not communicate. We saw a kindergarten that serves this village and another village nearby consisting of members of the same Bedouin family who live in buildings rather than tents because they submitted a master plan for the community to the Israeli government.
Many Bedouin villages are on Area C land (Israeli-controlled), which means that they must receive approval before building. The process is long and the Israeli government often rejects requests. The Israelis regularly demolish illegally built homes. For example, the Israeli government demolished an attachment to the one legal building in the village we saw because the village had not received approval to build it. We saw another Bedouin village in Area C, located on land that the army has designated to be a fire zone. When the military uses the land, the residents are not allowed on the area, mostly affecting grazing animals. The military does not use the land frequently, and this strip of land was utilized maybe 3-5 times since 2003, yet it is still controlled by Israel.
After this, we drove back north to meet with two Palestinian women who also work on grassroots change. One woman is a student at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, studying Political Science. Though she received a full scholarship to a university in Germany, during her first year there, she experienced discrimination and decided to return to the West Bank to finish her studies. She is involved with Seeds of Peace, an international summer camp that brings together American, Israeli, and Palestinian children to open dialogue between the groups. Most, if not all, of the children who attend the camp have never spoken with members of the other groups. The group’s philosophy supports creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes of the Other in order to create social change. Many Palestinians feel that this form of normalization is wrong, so the organization is somewhat controversial.
The other woman we met runs the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans cooperative. She spoke about her experience as a Christian Palestinian and how she felt that outsiders try to create a division between Palestinian groups – Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin. Her organization helps to create opportunities for local artists, and as a free-trade organization, the profit from sales go back to the artists who can make a livelihood from their work.
The day brought up a lot of thoughts for me. It seemed to me that most of the speakers were pessimistic about macro change, but very positive about micro change. One did not see a solution at the macro level, whereas the others tended to support a two-state solution. It was encouraging to see how a few people were engaged in work at the grassroots level. At the same time, I recognize that we spoke with only four people and that there are many more people, both Israeli and Palestinian, who hold completely different views on what the solution should be. Even amongst the four speakers, they had varying views on how they want the Conflict solved.
At the end of the day, upon our return to Jerusalem and then Gedera, I thought about how easy it is to forget about the Conflict. We live in an almost completely Jewish community. We have our own lives and problems and social issues to deal with in Gedera. The only time most people I’ve spoken to in Gedera really think about the Conflict is when there are rockets coming from Gaza. Even so, I’ve spoken with a few social justice activists, my shabab, my host family, and friends, and I am hopeful that there will eventually be a solution and that great minds are working on the issue both at macro and micro levels.
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My experience with Yahel continues to inspire and challenge me everyday. When I got to Israel in September, I knew I wanted to learn more about this country, but I’m not sure if I really knew what I was getting into. My eyes have been opened to some problematic parts of living here, but more often I see the bright spots, the hope for a better future. I figured out a few years ago that my future lies within the Jewish community, although I’m still not sure in what capacity that may be. As time goes on and as I learn more, the answer becomes a bit clearer. All I know for sure is that I want to make this world a little bit better, not worse.
In February, the entire Yahel group went on a 5 day seminar to the Negev. While there, we hiked in the desert, stayed on the kibbutz where Ben-Gurion lived (Sde Boker) and learned about some southern development towns. For me, and for many of my fellow Yahelnikim, the most powerful part of our seminar was our time with the Bedouin community. For those who don’t know, the Bedouins are an indigenous Arabic population living throughout the Middle East, including Israel. There are about 150,000 or so Bedouins currently living in Israel, mostly concentrated in the Negev, the southern desert area of Israel. Yes, they were here before the state of Israel was formed, and they are full citizens of the state now. However, their full citizenship does not necessarily mean equality. When we learned about Ben-Gurion and his vision during our seminar, someone asked our tour guide what he thought of the Bedouins. Our tour guide simply answered, “He didn’t see them.” Ben-Gurion had this grand vision for cultivating the desert and making it a hospitable and thriving place because when he first saw it, he saw emptiness. He didn’t see the people who were already living there.
This mentality seems to still exist today. The Israeli government has tried several times to control the Bedouin population and centralize it into cities and population centers. The government established several townships specifically meant for Bedouin population. However, there are still over 50 Bedouin villages. We stayed in one of the seven recognized villages one night, Qasr al-Sir. These villages are recognized by the Israeli government and therefore have basic services such as water, electricity and sewage. However, it is still a far cry from most towns in Israel, even the small town of Gedera. It was a strange juxtaposition to see satellite TV dishes and unpaved roads in the same village. We slept in a tent and enjoyed dinner and breakfast cooked by a local women’s catering company. We then went to an unrecognized village (there are about 43) the next day, and the situation seemed grim. They do not have water, electricity or garbage collection provided by the government, and the unemployment rates are very high. We spoke with one of the leaders of the village who was very frustrated with the Israeli government. They were fighting for recognition, but the community leaders often lack the political savvy, knowledge or experience to successfully navigate the Israeli government’s bureaucracy. The entire experience was very hard to reconcile.
The Bedouin tent experience is a quintessential part of Birthright, but this was no Birthright experience at all. I’m wondering if a Jewish state means a state that is only for Jews. That’s not the reality here, and it’s never going to be; the Jewish state needs to be a state for all its citizens, not just its Jewish ones. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: the best way to support Israel is to be critical and help make change.
I’m reading the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer. He has dedicated his life to helping the poorest of the poor in Haiti, treating them for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. I’m inspired by his life and work but at the same time very daunted. He has committed all his time to doing good, and he’s actually making a difference and where am I? I don’t have a Harvard Medical School degree, so I can’t cure people of TB. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do to make this world a better place, not a worse one. I think it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed because there is just so much wrong and injustice in this world, but I’m trying to see the bright spots, the good people, that are turning things around. I want to be one of those people. As Paul Farmer said, “I’ve never known despair and I don’t think I ever will.”
So this is my little way of trying to make things better. I don’t know what I can do to make things better in Israel, but at least I can spread some awareness to some people and maybe get the wheels in your mind turning. Our trip was led and organized by a group called Bustan (click the name for more info), and they really did an amazing job of showing us a complete picture of the situation and how they are trying to help (including their women employment development, like the catering company that cooked for us).
The idea of pursuing social change can be scary. I didn’t realize that until this year, but I also didn’t realize that that was exactly what I want and need to do. In what capacity, I’m not sure yet, but I’m figuring it out. There’s a Hebrew song that I’ve known since I was a kid, but the words have finally kicked in:
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר – לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to despair at all.
It’s actually a pretty catchy song with a great message–the Jews really knew how to do it back in the day. I’m also learning the song in Amharic!
I’ll end by recalling the Exodus story that Jews just recently retold at the Passover Seder. I believe the story resonates with Jews in many ways. Some can take away from it that we retell the story every year to remind ourselves of the bitterness of our enslavement and to prevent it from ever happening to us again. We as a Jewish people must remain strong and having a Jewish state to call our own is important in ensuring our freedom. On the other hand, we can also realize that this bondage is not something that any people would want to endure. Exodus 23:9 reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” I think for a long time, the fear of being the “stranger” once again has influenced the actions and reactions of the Jewish people and state. I hope that now, Jews can lead the way in preventing injustice throughout the world, to Jews and non-Jews alike.
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A lot has happened in the past months. But no part of the program has felt quite as high spirited as the holiday season here in Israel. It’s been a great stretch of fun since Purim. I think my highlight, however, was the Pesach break. It wasn’t just vacation and a full halt to learning. I had the chance to learn and explore on my own—outside of Yahel.
Petra’s air is arid and often mixed with a light waft of horse poop. Summer is moving in now. There was a dim hum of a mixture of languages down near the main attractions—tourists from everywhere, scrambling around, eager to test their bargaining abilities with local shop owners. Shwarma was in restaurant windows, Bedouin men walking in their jalabiyyas, and a wide variety of kefiyehs visible at every turn; red ones, black ones, green and blue. I even heard Hebrew being spoken in the streets—a relief to see that Israelis can travel without too much concern in at least one other place in the Middle East.
I was lucky enough to have visited this historic city two and a half years before. During my travels, I met some local Bedouin guys my age who became my friends. On this particular visit, I was able to link back up with them, and this time, they really helped me and my travel companion/roommate (Dave Korolnek) with everything. They sent a car to the border to pick us up, they got us tickets to tour a candle-lit Petra, we ate “mansaf” style lunch at their families’ house, we saw one of Ala’adin’s castles from the Crusader period, and we had an amazing barbeque in the desert of Little Petra.
Being with these friends of mine was a lot like being in Gedera in our first weeks of the Yahel program. I was constantly looking around me, eager to soak in every bit of information my eyes, ears and brain could wrap themselves around. I tried to pick up bits of Arabic, and to immerse myself in my environment.
During our barbeque in the desert, I sat with my friends Ahmad, Rami, and Feikh, and had the chance to talk politics (something I love doing). Generally, I’m hesitant to bring up Israel up in conversation when I’m outside of Israel, but I went for it. They were surprisingly receptive to the topic and we discussed Israel’s policies with the Palestinians, Arab citizens of Israel, and the Bedouin. They discovered that I’m currently volunteering in Israel in the Ethiopian community of Gedera, and they also knew I was Jewish. Most Israelis develop ulcers when I tell them I was in an Arab country and told locals I was Jewish and working in Israel. ”Are you crazy? It’s not safe! Maybe it’s because you’re American. I could never go there.” I can be crazy, Jordan is quite safe, I am an American, and I saw plenty of Israelis in Petra.
Why am I talking about Jordan and my experiences there? It’s because Yahel has given me new tools to explore new cultures. When you go into a new culture, you have to drop your prior stigmas, and your prejudices. You give everyone a clean slate, and if you do it genuinely, I believe people are willing to do the same for you. Perhaps general Arab sentiment towards Israel tends to be negative. So what? Until you come to the table with a smile and open mind, the stigmas against Arabs and against Israelis and against Jews will never disappear. All your experiences are through a clouded lens. People appreciate when others genuinely open up to them. Coming to Gedera, it was not until I opened up and gave myself to the program and the community that I began reaping the benefits, and the same goes for my travels in Jordan. I look forward to using this knowledge in every country, state, and culture I encounter and explore for the rest of my life. Thank you, Yahel.
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It’s happening to me. I can’t seem to help but imagine a future for myself in this country. Whether I’m in a kibbutz in the north, amidst the Jerusalem bustle, or hiking in the Negev, I keep picturing the life I could lead here.
I never thought that I, of all people, would ever consider making aliyah. I’m not a Zionist. I don’t believe that I have any special right to this land. I can rationalize the need for Israel as a safe haven for persecuted and disenfranchised Jews from all over the world—as it once was for my own survivor grandparents. Where else were Holocaust victims, exiled Jews from Arab lands, and Beta Israel caught between famine and civil war supposed to turn? No other country would accept these people in such large numbers, no matter how desperate their circumstances.
Yet, I can hardly include myself in this category. While I hold an Israeli passport, in truth I’m a middleclass, educated American. In the Californian community where I was born, anti-Semitism is but a distant shadow—a half-forgotten memory of what once was or muted whispers from abroad. When the Yahel Social Change Program ends in June, I can easily go back and lead a comfortable, fulfilling life in the States. If I have other options, I wonder if it’s moral for me to act on my Jewish privilege and move here—to act on my right of return while thousands of diaspora Palestinians cannot. My aliyah inclinations are clearly not the results of nationalist sentiments.
Neither can I offer any spiritual explanations. I’ve never felt deep pangs of longing for my ancestral homeland. When I stand in front of the Kotel, I feel nothing. Or more accurately, I feel whatever I had been feeling the moment before. Nothing changes. I look at the weeping Haredim around me and try to be compassionate, but the reality is that I just can’t relate. Living here hasn’t made me renounce my atheism and decide I have a soul.
So why is the prospect of staying here so tempting? This question baffles me, especially since making the move would mean sacrifices in terms of family, career, and general standards of living. While my desire to stay is largely a mystery to myself, I can begin to grasp at an explanation. Counterintuitively, it seems that the very factors that should make me run from here are what attract me the most.
To borrow an expression from a recent Jewschool blog post, my Israel has warts. Hovering over the ancient ruins, Mediterranean beaches, and mesmerizing deserts is a profound ugliness. This is a land of contradictions; the disturbing and the beautiful intertwine within the same places, often within the same individuals. I have been shown such unconditional warmth in this country. Strangers immediately welcome me into their homes, feed me, and express genuine concern for my wellbeing. Yet, on a daily basis I encounter the most blatant bigotry I have ever witnessed.
In my Israel, bright, promising teenagers tried to convince me that the entire population of Gaza should be wiped out in retribution for rocket fire. In my Israel, no one seems to know (or cares to know) that many Bedouin live in their historic villages without access to water, electricity, or health care. In my Israel, young people think it’s funny to say the n-word and watch me flinch. In my Israel, a local politician compared the older generation of Ethiopian-Israelis to the Israelities who were slaves in Egypt and had to die off before their nation could enter the promised land (implying that these immigrants have nothing of value to offer Israeli society). There is so much loss and suffering here as a result of stubborn unwillingness to understand.
All of these injustices can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know how to act, how to avoid apathy or despair. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Israelis respond to the news of some tragedy or another with a shrug and the words, “this is how life is in Israel.” And yet—maybe because Israeli society is so new, dynamic, and relatively tiny—real change seems possible to me here in a way it never did in the States. Thanks to Yahel’s learning component, I know that the work we are doing here in Gedera fits into a larger context. Rabbi Levi Lauer, founder and director of Atzum, advised that “the answer to the black hole of metaphysical uncertainty is to ground yourself in a way that your actions have daily consequences—for yourself and your society.” All over this country, activists are doing exactly that.
Their numbers may be small, but novel kinds of communities are forming. Israelis committed to creating social change are coming together. Where others find reasons to dismiss reality or leave the country, this generation hears a call to action. In the newly recognized Bedouin village of Qasr A-Sir, Bustan is helping to create a sustainable, local eco-economy. In courtrooms throughout Israel, Tebeka fights for justice by offering free legal services to Ethiopian-Israelis who have been the victims of discrimination. Tira’s Q school addresses Israeli education and employment gaps with its unique afterschool programs for Arab children, which combine English-learning with personal and communal development. And of course here in the Shapira neighborhood, Friends by Nature runs a number of programs to foster community and empowerment among Ethiopian -Israelis of all ages.
It may seem bizarre, but every time I hear a racist comment, see Sudanese and Eritrean refugees at the South Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, or notice the sudden difference in living conditions as I walk from Shapira towards New Gedera I feel compelled to stay. Each injustice is an opportunity to further understanding and to get to work. And as Rabbi Lauer has often repeated to the Yahelnikim, you need to have partners to make social change happen. There are plenty of those here.
I’ll be in Israel for another year. And, after that? Who knows? The future is, as always, uncertain, but the last six months have already opened my mind to new passions and possibilities. We’ll see where they lead.
Filed under: Diversity, Ethiopian Jews, guest post, Israel, Israel & Israelis, Jewish holiday, Living abroad, racism, Uncategorized | Comments Off
A few years ago, I spent the night on a layover in the Addis Ababa airport. In the gate next to mine, a group of 40 Ethiopians sat, waiting for their flight to Israel to board. The group ranged from babies to elders, and they stood out to me (a Canadian, dressed down for flying in comfortable pants and t-shirt) not just for their formal clothing, bright colours on white, but because a current of anxious energy ran through the group. I learned that not only were they all making aliyah, but that this would be a first plane ride for each of them. The thrumming emotion I witnessed was fear, loss, sadness, joy, and excitement.
Even though these Ethiopian olim weren’t making a literal transition from slavery to freedom, their leaving behind the oppressive familiar to embrace expansive hope struck a chord in me. Whenever a group of Jews leaves a country that has curtailed their religious, social, and political freedoms, I think it offers Jews around the world a new lens through which to consider our ancient Exodus.
Passover offers us the chance to revive and relive the first aliyah experience, reading ourselves into the biblical text. During the seder, we narrate the details of our oppression and our liberation, and then sing Dayenu, cycling through the many wonders lavished on us by God. We presume a happily-ever-after after liberation, and conclude the seder with ‘Be’Shanah Ha’Ba’ah Be’Yerushalayim’. And we forget to ask what life is like in the holy land, once next year has folded over into this one.
That evening in Addis Ababa, the olim boarded their flight to Tel Aviv and I boarded mine, on my way to Kampala, Uganda. Several weeks later, I passed through the Addis Ababa airport again, this time on my own flight to Israel to spend a few weeks with the Ethiopian community of Kiryat Moshe. There, I met Ethiopian Jews who had made aliyah in years past. These immigrants had had time to integrate into Israeli society, but in many cases, time was not what they needed. I heard stories from Ethiopian teenagers – themselves born in Israel, as it was their parents who had made aliyah – who, because of their skin colour, were mocked and bullied and told to ‘go home’. I learned from them about the variegated racism and discrimination that many immigrants of colour to Israel experience, as they struggle to find home in a Jewish society that shares the same religious identity, but often very different ways of seeing and performing Judaism.
There is a clear frustration with otherness in Israel, and a perception of encroachment on a geography that is open homeland to some but less to others. Is this simply racism? Or are some of us hesitant to welcome a community that carries with it the stains of a recent liberation?
It is a difficult reality that immigrants who move to a new home are still, in many ways, chained to the past; sometimes they are chained to trauma, sometimes to tradition, and sometimes these chains also ensure a comforting and necessary connection to past and present native communities. The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the weightiness of chains; they expressed the belief that the children of Israel were made to wander in the desert for forty years after the Exodus in order that the enslaved generation would have time to die off. The generation that would actually enter Israel would thus theoretically be free from the chains and memories of slavery.
What does the newly-arrived ‘other’ evoke? An echo of trauma in our own past that’s not long-buried? A reminder that we were all chained once, and that in many ways, many of us are still weighted down?
This year, sitting down in community together at the Passover seder, I hope for the clarity to examine the constraints of my own and others’ freedom, the bravery to ask what happens after, and the strength to hold myself accountable to the answers.
Ora Nitkin-Kaner grew up in Toronto, Ontario. After receiving her BA and MA in Religion from the University of Toronto, she moved to New Orleans to participate in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, working with wrongfully incarcerated and exonerated men. In 2011, Ora moved to Philadelphia to begin rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This past summer, she led a college service-learning program to India, and she currently spends Fridays working as a chaplain-in-training at an elders’ residence in New Jersey.
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A new generation of young Jews are coming to Israel to prusue Jewish learning while contributing to, and interacting with, low-income populations. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Masada: check. Jerusalem’s old city: check. Tel Aviv’s nightlife: check. Bedouin tent: check. Yad Vashem Holocaust museum: check. What really is there left to do or see in Israel after a whirlwind, 10-day Birthright trip?
A lot, it turns out – starting with slowing down.
“It’s not that I did not love Birthright when I went on it,” says Samantha Sisisky, a 23-year-old from Richmond, Virginia who raced through, and “got into,” Israel during her senior year of college at the University of Virginia – thanks to the famous free trip that has brought some 320,000 young Jews to Israel in the last 13 years. “I totally drank the Kool-Aid and it was totally awesome.
“And then I was ready to return and see something more real.”
According to Avi Rubel, the North America director of MASA, the joint Jewish Agency and Israeli government umbrella organization that oversees some 200 study, volunteer, internship, adventure and other experiences for young Jewish adults in Israel – these sorts of sentiments are far from unique.
Among the fastest growing post-college programs to Israel today, says Rubel, is the genre of so-called Jewish service learning trips. This is where participants come to Israel, dig in their heels in one, usually less-than-glamorous-location, and try and do some good – while at the same time rooting their experience within the context of social change and Jewish values.
Sisisky, for example, is spending nine months in a low income, predominantly Ethiopian neighborhood in Gedera, a town of some 20,000 residents in the center of the country. She shares a small house with seven other young Americans, takes Hebrew classes – and sets out every day to be an assistant English teacher in the local school, help kids with homework, tutor adults at the community center, and hoe and weed in the community vegetable garden.
Group sessions and lectures tackle such questions as, “What constitutes community, Jewishly, and otherwise,” and “What is one’s role and responsibility to that community.”
“Boring? Sometimes,” she smiles. “But I would not trade it for the world.”
A group of volunteers sitting with members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Gedera. Eliyahu Hershkovitz
“Obviously we are not Ethiopian Israelis, but I feel we do become part of the community. We walk around the streets and are invited into our neighbors’ homes. We might work with one kid, and then their older brother, and then with their mom or dad. We have host families. We have a place here.” And, she adds, as if an afterthought, “We also are doing some good.”
“I have found that there are a lot of people who crave a different connection to Israel,” says Dana Talmi, who founded the organization– called Yahel, Israel Service Learning – that Sisisky’s program is part of. Done right, Talmi says, such service-learning experiences can both help repair the world – and ignite the Jewish souls of those who serve.
There have always been many volunteer programs in Israel, Talmi and Rubel will be the first to admit. But if in the past this community work was done as a component of a broader Israel “experience” program, without much coordination with grassroots groups and without being tied into Jewish values and philosophy – the landscape now is changing.
Today, a small but growing number of volunteering programs, as exemplified by Yahel, which Rubel calls MASA’s model “boutique” service learning experience, or BINA, a popular program run by the Jewish Center for Identity and Hebrew Culture, that places North Americans in struggling Tel Aviv neighbors, where many of the African asylum seekers live, are becoming more serious – and finding a successful balance between community impact and participants’ personal development.
Talmi, an Israeli who grew up bouncing between Israel and Europe with her musician parents, returned to live in Israel five years ago, after six years in the United States. There, besides getting a degree in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, Talmi also worked for the American Jewish World Service, a Jewish values-based international development organization. She spent several years with AJWS taking young Jews on service learning trips to Honduras – and later served as the program officer in charge of all group leading.
Back in Zichron Ya’akov with her Venezuelan-born husband and two young children, with a dream of creating a high level Israel-focused Jewish service learning program, Talmi began reaching out to local social action groups to find partners, and then, reaching out in the other direction, to MASA and organizations like New York City-based Repair the World to form alliances and get funding. The Yahel nine-month program, like almost all of MASA’s longer programs, is heavily subsidized, with participants paying in the range of just $1000 for the entire program.
“What I didn’t want to do is just take kids down to Netivot and have them paint murals on walls,” says Talmi. Working with grass roots organizations, such as, in the case of Gedera, an outfit called Friends by Nature, gave Talmi a sense of what volunteer work was needed, and where these North American youngsters, the majority of whom do not speak Hebrew and do not have much if any professional training, could do actual good.
Yahel participant Benson Ansell, 26, from Arlington, Virginia, admits he is not sure who is getting more out of the program – him or the community. If anything, he would bet it’s him. “I had never felt super connected to being Jewish, even though part of me was always interested,” says Benson, who grew up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and spent a year teaching in Philadelphia as part of the AmeriCorps program City Year, and a stint studying abroad in Senegal before considering a trip to Israel.
“But after being here, that has changed,” says Ansell. “I have been amazed by is the diversity of the Jewish people: the history and where they come from. I became aware of minorities and marginalized communities here and it has been a real eye opener.”
Talmi dismisses criticism that programs such as Yahel or BINA expose foreigners to the “dirty laundry” of the country, and a Jewish Agency/Repair the World report released recently shows that, in fact, such exposure to Israel’s more difficult social problems engages, rather than turns off, young people. “There is no need to present a rose-colored version of Israel,” says Dyonna Ginsburg, the Jewish Agency’s director of Jewish service learning. “In fact, the more these young men and women learn about Israel – warts and all – the stronger their connection is to the country, their heritage and their Judaism.”
What’s next for the Gedera gang? “Aliyah is not a goal for us,” says Talmi. “If they stay, great. But really, what we want is for them for have a nuanced relationship with Israel.”
“I am confused now,” admits Jessica Braverman, another Yahel participant. The 26 year old from Atlanta, Georgia with a master’s degree in social work and non-profit management from the University of Georgia, did Birthright in 2009, and felt she had put the requisite “check” in the Israel box.
“I thought I would not come back afterwards. I felt like I had “done it” and was going to move on to bigger and better places,” she says. But, looking for an opportunity to go abroad after her masters, and with one foot out to door to a teaching program in Tbilisi, Georgia, she found herself browsing the MASA website.
“The decision to come here has really changed me,” she says. “I have learned how incredibly complex Israeli society is, and I have also grown a lot Jewishly this year. And now, I flip flop between thinking I will go home after these nine months and move on with my life, and thinking I might like to stay, move to Jerusalem and study some more. I am confused.”
“Confusing them,” concludes Talmi with a laugh. “That is our goal.”
This article was written by Danna Harman and originally published in the March 6th, 2013 Haaretz. You can find the original publication, here.
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I just started working in Gedera’s school for the developmentally disabled. I am coming in during their physical education block twice a week for two hours and I’m working as an extra staff member, extra set of eyes and body for the students aged between 12-23.
It was intimidating to walk into the school at first. The students don’t speak English and they act very differently than most kids. But in the end it’s an easy push to do it, because I know how important and meaningful this work is.
I started working with two young students. I watch them, tell them stories, talk to them about my day and my life. They don’t speak, but I know our relationship is developing. In the beginning they wandered off and might even put her head between her legs. Now we make more eye contact. I feel like I can read them by their demeanor and they actually communicate a lot, but not with words.
There was a moment where one student took my arm and wanted to hold it as we stared into the street together. We stood together for 15 minutes and just smiled and laughed. I don’t think we were staring at anything in particular, but we connected and it was nice.
I signed up for this project, because I wanted to do meaningful work in a community that I feel connected to. My mom did work similar to this and so did my father. My mom taught ESL in a high density immigrant neighborhood and my father served as a school trustee and worked on a special education committee. They’re both retired now.
I believe that the only way a society can be judged is by how it treats its marginalized, and a society needs empathy to do this work. It’s not just about progress for economic want. Empathy is necessary to address real human need. And it offers me a great lesson in how important humility is, in receiving that support.
Filed under: community, Diversity, Empowerment, Ethiopian Jews, Immersion, Impact, Israel, Israel & Israelis, Jewish Learning, life-changing, Teens and kids, Uncategorized, volunteering | No Comments »
The best part about the Jewish journey is that it never ends. There’s always a new exciting lesson waiting right around the corner. Sometimes I have those clear and refreshing moments when I think I have a handle on all the confusion in life and have found the answers and the insights. Then a new experience suddenly surfaces that casts everything into a different light. And then the journey continues…
That’s what happened over my 10 day service learning program in Israel. This January I had the privilege to continue my Jewish journey as a participant in Yahel’s Alternative Break service learning program with the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ramat Eliyahu, a neighborhood in Rishon L’Tzion. The program was led by a combination of seasoned staff and remarkable student leaders. I noticed and was deeply appreciative of all the effort invested in planning the program.
As a group of 14 students from the University of Maryland we spent our time learning about Ethiopian history, culture, and their stories and struggles integrating into Israeli society. We were hosted by families in the Ethiopian community. I have never encountered such warm and inviting people. We stayed in their homes for 10 days, and bear in mind that most of these families had many young children and challenging lives. It wasn’t very easy for them to host us, but they did it with love and warmth, and as the trip progressed we learned how to reciprocate that love and deep respect.
I had the unique opportunity to stay with the Kess, the religious and spiritual guide of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ramat Eliyahu. The Kess had a rather small 3 bedroom home with six very cute, energetic children. He hosted three of us and we took one of the three bedrooms, which means that all of his six children crammed into one of the other bedrooms. This didn’t seem to bother them. The children were so warm toward us and were always excited to see us, play games with us, and do their homework with us when we spent time with them in the evenings. I spent many nights listening and learning from the Kess about Ethiopian Jewish life and the struggles he and his community went through in their journey to Israel.
In terms of our tangible service activities, we painted and cleaned up a bomb shelter and an absorption center, helped construct a community garden, and helped repair an elderly woman’s home. These service activities were well received by the community. The elderly woman we helped had such a sad story; her husband had passed away the previous year, she was struggling to make a living on her own, and her home was in disrepair. After we finished repairing and painting her home, she had this glowing smile and I felt a connection to her through the chesed I had done for her. The joy on her face was something still blazed into my memory that I will never forget. She really was touched by our care and concern for her difficult situation.
An important element of the trip, on top of the warmth of the host families and the service projects we worked on, was the group dynamic. I was very impressed with every single one of the 14 students on our trip. Everyone was clearly very intelligent, curious, compassionate, and deeply respectful. It was a perfect combination that enabled us to have a safe space to engage in deep meaningful discussions about a host of issues affecting our Jewish outlook. We had moving conversations in which we could express our honest opinions on topics such as the value of service trips, our relationship to the rest of the world and to Israel, our connection and viewpoint on Judaism… People were so honest and had fresh perspectives to share on these issues. What made the trip amazing was the safe place we created in which we could grow and explore these questions and issues in an honest and respectful forum.
In my Jewish journey so far I have been exposed to spirituality through prayer and textual learning. I have done chesed activities on an informal basis and participated as a Jewish outreach advisor in a national Jewish organization. But despite my 13+years of Jewish education/involvement, I picked up an important piece of the puzzle on the Yahel service trip. A unique and fundamental facet to being a Jew and a human being, that was dormant in me prior to this trip.
I started to learn how to feel the world around me, and not just to feel a connection to the supportive community and individuals who fall within my comfort zone. Prior to this trip I didn’t feel empowered to connect to and seek to make a difference in the lives of people outside of my comfort zone; people less fortunate than me who have less than me. However, this trip challenged me to face this value and evaluate myself deeply and with 100% honesty. Ultimately, it brought that value in me to the surface. It exposed me, challenged me, and guided me to learning how to feel a connection to these issues and the challenges in the world around me. It empowered me to feel that I can stand up and take an active role to help improve the lives of people who struggle and have less than me, and to develop a connection with those people.
I feel more honest about my opinions and recognize that I still have much to learn about these issues. I feel more open minded and not afraid of those who are different me. I am no longer afraid to step outside of my comfort zone.
Yet, I am fully aware that I will continue to be wrapped up in my own life pursuits. That won’t change, and honestly it shouldn’t change. We all have goals and should strive to achieve them.
What has changed, though, is that I see my future destiny intertwined with a focused effort to help those less fortunate than me and to continue to feel a connection to the world around me. I’m not sure where that will take me and how exactly it will translate into service, but I am ready for my next Jewish adventure! And I will always remember that the Jewish journey never ends.
Here, Yonatan builds raised beds in the Ramat Eliyahu Community Garden in Rishon L’Tzion with other Insight Program participants from the University of Maryland Hillel.
Yonatan Isser is a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park in the A. James Clark School of Engineering. He is completing his BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering in May 2013 and will be working in the construction industry on high rise buildings. Yonatan has been an active leader in the Orthodox Jewish community at the University of Maryland for three years and his interests include reading, running, basketball, and traveling.
Yonatan just returned from spending 10 days on Yahel’s Insight Program in Rishon L’Tzion, run in collaboration with Gar’in Ichud of Friends by Nature and supported by Repair the World.
Filed under: community, Diversity, Ethiopian Jews, Immersion, Israel, Israel & Israelis, Living abroad, racism | No Comments »
Last week, our group visited the Eco-Israel program on the Hava v’Adam Farm near Modi’in. The program is a 5-month MASA-funded program that provides a learning experience focused on permaculture, sustainability, communal living, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. We had the opportunity to tour the farm and speak with the participants about their experience on the program, which is ending in about 2 weeks. Learning about permaculture, we played a game during which we each had to chose two people to stay equidistant from. When one person moved, everyone else adjusted their position, as well. This game helped us to see how ecosystems are interdependent. While the discussion focused on our physical environment, I think that it is also a good representation of how people are connected.
Last week, Savyonne and I went to a conference at Tel Aviv University on Migration and Well-Being. We learned about migration in to and within Israel, USA, and Europe. Migration has been a common theme among people since the beginning, and it has also been common among Jews. When natural disasters, persecution, or civil disputes influence people to migrate en masse, individuals are affected as well as the countries and communities to which people go. The attitudes toward immigrants often affect individuals’ and families’ well-being and sense of self. At the same time, communities welcoming immigrants change when new cultures are introduced. When talking about the Ethiopian Israeli experience in Israel, it is important to look at the narratives of both people from the host culture (Israel) and those who are emigrating (Ethiopian Jews). I think that we have seen during our 4 months here how Israel has changed as a result of Ethiopian Jews immigrating to Israel and how Ethiopian Jews have changed since immigrating to Israel. While there have been issues of racism and discrimination, at the same time Israelis have benefited from an increase in knowledge of diversity among Jews. Ethiopian Jews have suffered greatly in coming to Israel, but they have also benefited in a number of ways. Many people will explain in their narratives about the loss they experienced as well as the arduous journey of getting to Israel. At the same time, I have not heard one person say that they would rather be in Ethiopia. Israel is the home for both the people who emigrated and for their children who were born here.
Our own narratives may be similar in nature – how much we’ve learned or how frustrated we are at the Israeli school system – but each one of us is going to have a different struggle and a unique understanding about our time here. Like the game we played at the farm, our experiences are dependent upon how we interact with the people we live and work with everyday, our physical environment, and an exchange of ideas and attitudes about the Israeli culture
They had donkeys on this farm.
The solar panel was one of the coolest things on the farm!
Filed under: community, Diversity, Ethiopian Jews, Immersion, Israel, Israel & Israelis, Jewish holiday, Living abroad, stereotypes | 2 Comments »
After graduating from college, I wanted to take at least one year off before deciding on a career. I wanted to experience something new and different and also wished to be of service and give back. I looked into programs from Africa to India, when I came across something that stood out. But, it was located in Israel. To me, Israel meant Zionist Judaism. I saw it as a religious place, where everyone would either force me to go to services or become a rabbi. Jews lived in New York City; I grew up there—why go to a land filled with more Jews, when I wanted to experience a change?
Clearly, I did not understand Israel. How could I think a country located in the Middle East was not cool enough for me? I had completely overlooked Israel’s diversity because it was never presented to me. Whenever people spoke of Israel it was always portrayed through one lens only. Until I came across the Yahel Social Change program, I had never looked at Israel as a dynamic place.
In Israel I live in the Shapira neighborhood where everyone knows each other. This is far different from my experience at home. Here, I walk down the street and say “Shalom” to everyone I see. People know who I am, and unlike in New York, people take the time to notice me.
Whenever there is a wedding or a funeral, everyone in the community gathers to celebrate the wedding or mourn those who have gone. Judaism plays an important role in the community—people keep kosher, they talk about religious issues and the holidays are always relevant.
Shapira has given me the opportunity to experience a new side of Israel and get a better understanding of Judaism. I recognized that Judaism is also a collective identity and not solely based on religious aspects. I have experienced it first-hand by living in this community and by witnessing the love and support that connects everyone. Walking down the street in Israel is a Jewish experience. I feel a common bond with the people here that can only be described as a Jewish one.
At home the only time I felt this intense feeling of community was in synagogue, but I always had trouble embracing it because it was in the context of religion. In the Youth Center, while tutoring and wherever I am in Shapira, I feel we share something special. This Jewish connection is not something tangible—it is an intuitive affinity. It is experienced as a feeling of safety and trustworthiness. As different as I thought an Ethiopian Israeli and I would be, the common denominator of Judaism links us together.